Beyond Mere Education: A visit to UC Berkeley Skydeck and the MDP Program
What part should a university have in a student’s life? That’s a question I used to ask very often while studying in my undergraduate program. Prior to trying to answer this question, one needs to understand a more substantial issue – what is the purpose of university? Is it the student itself? It is reasonable to say that universities focus on research and that the different members of the university – undergraduates, graduates and professors – are tools used to create impressive research. One obvious example of this phenomenon is the societal focus on the ranking of higher education institutions, which are significantly influenced by universities’ research reputations.
Despite that, we can see other experiential goals of universities by looking at examples of specific schools. A very well-known example is MBA programs. There, it is safe to say, to my understanding, that the focus is less on the academic material and more on empowering the students and addressing the optimal preparation for their future professional lives. Despite that, we can still say that the core focus of the universities today is still on research and examples like the MBA’s programs are the exceptions.
Beside the perspective of the academia, the question about the role universities are meant to play in students’ lives has of course another angle – the students. Which institute, he or she, will choose as their alma mater? What would and should they look for? In our visit in UC Berkeley we had the chance to see few examples that suggest that maybe the times are changing, and even “old-schools” like UC Berkeley today a different experience of academic life.
First, we have Skydeck, the UC Berkeley accelerator for undergraduate and graduate start-ups. This accelerator was formed as a partnership between the Haas School of Business, the College of Engineering, and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. All the mentioned institutes have joined together to use the vast resources of the university’s research and scale them up into well-prepared companies. This agenda is carried out through a mentoring program that supports its members with the right tools: advisers, a network of accredited investors to get some capital, and workspace where the members can share their work with one another.
Skydeck already has a group of successful alumni. For these alumni, UC Berkeley is not just a place of courses and exams, but much more.
We saw another example of the university looking beyond mere academia in the MDP (Master of Development Practice) program. The program’s mission statement is to offer the skills, perspectives, decision-making tools, and foundation of scientific knowledge needed to forge effective sustainable development. What does this mean? It is a new graduate program in sustainability studies that aims to give its students the whole package that will help them be better practitioners in the sustainable development field.
Quite ambitious obviously but from our short visit, we can say it’s also very attractive. Similar to Skydeck, the first thing that catches one’s eye when visiting the program is its hub of ideas and people sharing their knowledge and experience with one another, students and professors alike. Moreover, as part of the program the students get a chance to design and implement their own project somewhere around the world, whether it’s Morocco, Indonesia or Maine. All that with a great emphasize on mentoring.
For me, these two examples shed some more light on my past year as a fellow in the Milken Innovation Center. This year I also had a chance to get that added value that is not yet provided in old school studies. Like in the MDP Program, as part of the fellowship, we have a chance to “learn by doing.” Working in the ministry of finance as a fellow has been a chance to learn how to put into action what I have learned in the past and to acquire more practical tools. Also, as is the case for the participants of Skydeck, during the fellowship, I have the privilege of being mentored by well-experienced professionals and to network with people with different backgrounds. It has been a great chance to get the whole package and not just mere education.